There are plenty of good reasons to choose a plant-based or vegan diet, whether your primary concern is your own health or animal welfare. But as so many people adopt not just a vegan diet but a vegan lifestyle and even a vegan identity, perhaps the benefits need to be examined more closely.
Before we delve into whether veganism is a product of capitalism, let’s take a moment to define what both veganism and capitalism actually are.
The word “vegan” was coined in 1944 by Donald Watson, one of the founding members of the Vegan Society. The aims of the vegan movement were soon after clarified to mean “to seek an end to the use of animals by man for food, commodities, work, hunting, vivisection, and by all other uses involving exploitation of animal life by man.”
Capitalism is not nearly as simple to define. In the most basic terms, it is an economic system where private entities, companies, or individuals own the factors of production—entrepreneurship, capital goods, and natural resources. Labour, the fourth factor of production, is of course owned by the individual who works (or else it is slavery, which nobody likes), but under capitalism, labourers rarely become the capitalists who own any of the former.
Under capitalism, labourers derive income from their labour, and the owners (or shareholders) derive income from their ownership. The goal of capitalism, generally, is to maximise efficiency to generate the highest possible profit from the means of production. One of the most basic arguments against veganism in a capitalistic society is the view that animals are things to be owned, and thus should be used to provide maximum profit at maximum efficiency.
Using Your Money Ethically
Many people talk about ground-up changes in a capitalist society in terms of “voting with your dollars.” This means supporting companies that are aligned with your own moral principles.
What this looks like in practice is researching and choosing to purchase goods and services from companies that have values similar to yours—for example, companies that use fair-trade practices, pay their employees and suppliers fairly or use green practices. Theoretically, if enough people make their purchasing decisions along comparable moral guidelines, companies will either be forced to change their practices or else cease to exist.
The choice to go vegan is a relatively extreme or committed version of this. By eschewing all financial support of companies that exploit animal life, they lose customers. The inverse would then also true; companies that support animal welfare are likely to become more successful, as more consumers make decisions along these lines.
A Vegan Lifestyle Can Actually Be More Harmful to the Environment
While many practising vegans are quick to espouse the global benefits of choosing a vegan diet, this may be missing a crucial part of the bigger picture.
Many vegans eschew animal products altogether— so not only do they avoid animal products in their diet, they shun them in every aspect of their lives. That cool leather jacket in your closet? Sorry, it’s got to go.
“Vegan leather” is a rebranding of something that had been popularised in the ‘90s as “pleather”— that is to say, plastic leather. While choosing a vegan leather over an animal-based product may save an animals life now, it is often more harmful than leather in terms of overall environmental impact.
Most vegan leather on the market is made of either polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or polyurethane. Both require significant chemical treatment to gain the desired texture and appearance, and the lifecycle of vegan leather is much shorter than that of animal leather. When worn out, vegan leather must be recycled in a way that ultimately uses even more chemical treatment and processing. So if you want to make the most impact with your dollar, maybe search out a vintage leather jacket that will last you many years to come, instead of a new plasticky imitator.
We must remember, too, that throughout the course of human history, those who have lived in the most environmentally friendly ways have not been vegan at all, but instead hunted and sourced their animal products from the wild and (this is an important point to note) only in necessary quantities.
Veganism makes sense so long as factory farming and other exploitation of animal life remains the norm, but it doesn’t have to be this way. This exploitation is a byproduct of capitalism, and thus the form of veganism we see is a byproduct of capitalism itself.
While seeking a safer, healthier, and happier life for both human and animals alike is no doubt a noble cause and one that we at Lifestyle Collective support, but instead of activism as a response to that, we can look to activism as a way to restructure our society to be more equal overall and less motivated by greed and the desire for more, irrespective of the cost to animals and the planet.